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Civic duty afoot

The electric fence that I erect in sweetcorn time to astonish the bandit raccoons that come in stealth to steal my sweetcorn will ''short'' if a pumpkin leaf or carrot frond lodges against it. So I walk the fence each evening as finale to the day's chores, and I refer to this inspection as my perambulation. In recent summers I have noticed this word amuses the younger folks rather than communicates, and perhaps it is about to drop from our lingo and be forgotten. Perambulate used to be, and not too long ago, a common elegance throughout rural New England for a simple walk. ''Well,'' Old Timer would say, ''guess I'll put on my co't and perambulate down the ro'd and see the bo't come in.''

Long before Robert Frost, New England town government had a basic provision about good fences and good neighbors. Boards of selectmen of adjoining towns were required to meet periodically to ''perambulate the town bounds.'' Since most towns would be bounded by four other towns, this meant just about one outing a year before the cycle was completed. Based on the date of incorporation , the older town would notify the younger town of the place and date, !nd it was (and is) a statutory obligation to attend.

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Depending on the men involved -- no women held municipal office then -- the perambulation could be efficiently perfunct, or it could be a jolly outing. As a reporter, I walked a town line once and the selectmen had arranged for a restaurateur to meet us by Monson's brook on the Old County Road, and when we walked out of the puckerbrush behold a sumptuous picnic spread under the trees by a waterfall and a limpid pool. Two selectmen, one elderly and the other infirm, had not walked the line with us, but were present to assist with the picnic.

In New England, towns abut each other. There is no in-between jurisdiction of a county or parish. As villages developed rather much in the centers, the boundaries were thus in wild terrain, and selectmen could perambulate for miles without coming upon a house. Wading streams and climbing over blowdowns was not easy work. As they moved along, the joint selectmen would reset frost-hove monuments, agree on points of division, and accumulate knowledge of use in their secondary job of tax assessors. But most of all, the officers got to know each other, and cemented relations for amicable co-existence. When a settlement (pauper) case came along, it would be difficult to get mad at somebody who'd walked with you through a swamp.

Once in a while these days a town here and a town there will decide to review its boundaries, and the routine is essentially the same as in the long ago. But mostly, lines have been run and put in the computer, and new-day selectmen let their town managers earn their money. Town managers, of course, do that by hiring a community planning consultant, or sending a note down to the municipal engineer. If you're wondering about the east-west line of Dubbsville, pull a card.

To folks in the small towns, and children growing up there, perambulate was thus an oft-heard word. Notice would be posted that a perambulation would take place on a given day. The local newspaper would carry an item that the perambulation had been completed. And the clerk's books in both towns would have the official record that in accordance with Chapter so-and-so of the Revised Statutes, Section C as amended, the municipal officers of Plunkettstown and West Muttge did meet by appointment thus and so, and then and there did perambulate the town bounds and fulfil the objects of the duty. ATTEST: six signatures (always including the absent aged and infirm, else they would not get their fees).

There were incidents. One year the selectmen of two towns missed a witness point and went right along perambulating the bounds of the next two towns. Night fell, and after a time both towns turned out the volunteer firemen, who found the officials and led them to safety. The firemen twitted their superiors about this, but unwisely. Upon applying for firemens' stipends, the boys were told the law allowed them pay only if called by the selectmen, or ''in case of burning buildings.'' Sorry about that. But the selectmen, properly, drew their perambulation fees.

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